The South Central Region of the RSA is holding a series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events are run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:
- Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
- Meeting and networking with other Fellows
- Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
- Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.
On Thursday 17 October, at the Jelly Arts Centre, former Headteacher of Chelsea Open Air Nursery School and Children’s Centre Kathryn Solly gave a presentation and led a discussion on ‘Conserving Creativity in the Early Years.’ This is a guest blog from Kathryn.
My talk for the RSA South Central Region’s Ideas in Education Series started from the premise that the earliest years of education are the crucial ‘seedbed’ of future learning and development, and hence that the highest quality provision is essential in order to retain and nurture creative future possibilities.
One of the key parts of the evening’s discussion centred upon, what Shirley Brice Heath calls, the choice to provide ’the kind of learning that comes through direct experience, participation and collaboration’ versus ‘one prolonged stretch of spectatorship.’ Many attendees agreed that there is a need to prevent the narrowing of the Early Years curriculum too soon and to resist an earlier start to formal schooling in primary schools.
We need creativity, in its broadest sense, to permeate all Early Years educational provision. It is about the ability to innovate, and develop ‘possibilities thinking’, which is vital to nurturing future creativity in the work force, innovation and industrial development, as we prepare young children for a world we do not know and for jobs that do not yet exist.
It is about the ability to innovate, and develop ‘possibilities thinking’.
We need well-educated trainees entering industry and we need for our nation to retain its creative cutting edge.
The OECD states that early childhood learning is in the ‘public good’. Political pressures, and resultant conflicts, are leading to the creation of a premature formal curriculum stressing early literacy and numeracy versus a broader play-based learning approach (which includes developmentally appropriate literacy and numeracy). The latter focuses upon children’s interests and needs and is led by professionals working in close partnership with parents. There was a broad consensus that for many young children who are well supported at home achievement in literacy and numeracy is not an issue. However, for many summer-born children, and those with individual needs and disabilities, emergent literacy and numeracy are best achieved in contexts where they make sense to children as part of their self-chosen play.
I would be interested in discussing further, with attendees and Fellows, the critical importance of creative Early Years education– both facilitating it and the challenges faced by the professionals trying to support the appropriate development of our youngest citizens, whose voices are rarely heard.
Find out more about the campaign against developmentally inappropriate learning at: ‘Too Much, Too Soon’.
You can contact Kathryn Solly via email at email@example.com.
Book now for upcoming events in the Ideas Education series:
To find out more contact Fellowship Councillor for South Central Bethan Michael.
Mondays. Rainy Mondays. Not much to smile about, you might think.
And yet broad grins were breaking out in Tipton town centre last Monday as intrepid members of the ‘Secret Smiling Society’ made it their mission to run around during an afternoon downpour, pulling faces at strangers, telling jokes to shopkeepers, and challenging schoolchildren to race to the bus stop.
This was all part of the ‘Clear Fear’ game, designed by Dr. Martin Webber at York University as a project to combat social anxiety. Participants are encouraged to think about what their ‘superpowers’ would be if they were superheroes, and then to use these powers for good in order to make strangers smile.
Tipton, as one of the Connected Communities team’s seven action and research sites for the Big Lottery funded Social Inclusion and Wellbeing programme, was chosen to help road-test the intervention, with RSA staff joining students and staff from the RSA Academy to play the game as a way of making connections with other local residents. The Connected Communities team will be following up on the feel-good momentum by launching a small community grants fund available for local residents and Fellows to bid for up to £1,000 to spark new projects that bring people together and support mental wellbeing. If you live in the area, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for instructions in how to apply.
In the meantime, the Clear Fear game is looking to go from strength to strength. Martin and his team are currently using the RSA’s Kickstarter crowd-funding page to raise money to create a gamers’ toolkit, allowing individuals and groups to play the game across the country – and beyond.
Martin needs your help to reach this goal. So to find out more about his project, or to donate a few pounds towards the cause, head to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/982434134/clearfear-game
With your help, the Secret Smiling Society can spread smiles around the world!
Filed under: Design and Society, Social Brain, Social Economy
Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.
An excerpt from the BBC coverage:
“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.
“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.
“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”
So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.
There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.
Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.
Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13
With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.
As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.
I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.
Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.
This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.
The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.
No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.
Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).
We at the RSA believe in the power of making, especially when it involves newly emerging approaches; our intention is to help grow the infrastructure and opportunities for designing and making at a local level, both in London and around the country.
Our first venture into this arena was held at Somerset House last Wednesday, and was a resounding success. We introduced and connected the varied and rather fragmented groups interested in this agenda and showcased some of the great work already happening. 300 people came to this inaugural event and the basement of Somerset House’s west wing was filled with professional makers and designers, hobbyists, 3D printing companies, technologists, schools, educators and many more groups that defy easy categorisation. You can see the full list and links here.
One of the surprising and heartening things about this emerging area is that in terms of age it’s a level playing field: age is no barrier to entry at either end of the spectrum. The Ideas Foundation brought several groups of children from schools in the north west, all of whom were collaborating across various subject areas: English, Art, DT, and ICT students had been working together to create award winning projects that they brought to the event. Many of these teenagers had never been on a train before, let alone to London, yet clearly had huge talent, and were more switched on to the possiblities of emerging technologies than some of the adults in the room.
For many, the most surprising speaker and workshop leader was 14 year old Amy Mather, a remarkable girl who held a workshop for 15 adults making conductive thread circuits after speaking about her adventures with Raspberry Pi.
The confidence of all these young people around technology reminded me of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms work at MIT which I first discovered when studying Human Computer Interface Psychology in the eighties. One of his theories about the power of computers which really struck me and has stayed with me throughout the years is that computers are non-judgemental; you program something and it either works or it doesn’t. If you’re struggling at school and feel misunderstood, technology can be your saviour. The picture above doesn’t look that different from what we saw this week – kids playing with robots. The difference is that with the invention of Arduino and Raspberry Pi, combined with the knowledge transfer powers of the internet, the technology is now available to many more of us.
However, the event wasn’t all about robots and new technology, exciting though both areas are. Sophie Thomas ran a Great Recovery teardown workshop taking apart electronic products, exposing the elements that we throw away so casually and looking at ways we could re-design them from scratch to re-use our valuable resources. The Restart Project showed us how to fix and repair products that we might previously have thought were destined for the dustbin. Technological innovation is always exciting: developing ways to deliver consumer electronics in a sustainable way is just as important and this conversation was at the heart of the event.
What I found most exciting about the event was the amount of cross cultural connections that were being made as the day went on. On the face of it, we followed a standard trade show format of stands, talks and workshops, but what was different about this event was that everyone was meeting people from beyond their usual networks who were interested in the same subject as they were, but from a different angle. We had educationalists connecting with design innovators to inject a new way of thinking into schools, product designers hatching plans for research papers with RSA Fellows, RSA Student Design Awards winners (see video above) talking to chemists and finding out that there were less harmful chemicals that they could be using, and many more people connecting over their passion for this area. The excitement in the room was palpable all day long and everyone left having had their brains “rewired” in an unexpected and powerful way.
We are currently developing plans for an ambitious and innovative project in the areas of making and education, which will be rolled out both in London and around the country. Also look out for the RSA FutureMaker Premium; a prize for innovation in this area.
Thank you to all stallholders, speakers and workshop hosts for your fantastic contributions, to the Comino Foundation who initiated and funded the event, to everyone who attended the event and to Somerset House for kindly letting us use the recently vacated HMRC mailroom to host the event.
The event was a collaboration between the Design and Enterprise strands of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA.
Nat Hunter is Co-Director of Design at the RSA
You can follow her @redfish66
Email means different things to different people. Some wise souls use it almost exclusively at their workplace, and view email as a tool for tasks, to be dealt with efficiently and dispassionately. But many, and probably most, now view their email as an extension of themselves. In this sense it’s more like a portal to quench curiosity, or a stage where we play our part, or worse, it’s a ticking bomb of words that may or may not explode at any minute. As such, email has become the vortex of choice for our unquiet minds.
While I aspire to be more like an email technocrat, and manage it for short periods, I am part of the generation that uses email, despite its various limitations, as the default means of communicating. And I have noticed, largely through the use of email on smartphones, that I am gradually being sucked into the vortex.
Image via medibeauty.biz
To illustrate, yesterday evening I reached home about 6.30, connected with family, had dinner, took my son out for a brief walk and came back home ready to put him to bed. I was a little tired, but otherwise present, relaxed, at ease. And then I made the mistake of just quickly checking my smartphone for new work emails.
There were a few that made no psychic impact, but one that read like an implicit rebuke to a previous email I had sent, and it lingered uncomfortably in my psyche for the next two hours until I managed to sleep. I did lots of other things in that time, but the impact of the email was still there, a centrifugal force pulling my attention away from the thoughts and feelings of the people around me, and diluting the quality of experience in the here and now.
Many people view email as a portal to quench restless curiosity, or as an identity update, or as a verbal bomb that might explode at any minute, and as such it becomes the default vortex for our unquiet minds.
The cost of convenience
Of course, there is the enormous convenience of being able to easily work from home and out of office hours and it helps to have work email accessible on your phone. Still, that expectation and convenience creates habitual patterns of behaviour that are by no means entirely benign.
The collapse of boundaries between work and home is not always a bad thing, but the ubiquity of smart phones means that there is always an imminent threat of such a collapse happening at the wrong moment. Perhaps some people can absorb news about a funding application, troubling information about a colleague or a reminder of an imminent deadline and return to the mood and attentiveness they had before checking, but I haven’t met them yet, and suspect they are few and far between.
Perhaps the core issue is the default verb we use for email. This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check? It suggests a kind of vigilance and surveillance that a responsible person ought to undertake, like “I’m just going to check I have my passport” or “I’m just going to check I locked the front door.” If we shifted this mindset of ‘checking’, the presence of email on our smartphones may not be such a threat to our presence and peace of mind. If email was instead something one had ‘to do’ or ‘to write’ or ‘to read’, the perceived urgency ‘to check’ would not be there and the restless habitual tendencies that underpin it might thereby be weakened.
This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check?
To be clear, I think this challenge of handling emails is significantly complicated by smartphones, not least because 78% of people check email on their smartphones. When you sit at your desk you can (and really should) get better at managing your mails, and Oliver Burkeman, for instance, is excellent on how to achieve what he calls ‘inbox nirvana‘. However, when your phone is synchronised with your work email, as most now are, this kind of management is much harder. You read your emails on the phone while waiting in queues, while travelling, and more generally when you are not strictly ‘working’, so you are much more likely just to scan them and leave them in your inbox rather than act on them with the requisite clarity of purpose.
So what to do? The crux of behaviour change is often distilled as the challenge of making good things easier to do and bad things harder to do. In this case, I don’t want to lose the option of using/reading/writing/enjoying my work email on my phone when I actively choose to, but I do want to be saved from my my tendency just to ‘check’ for the wrong reasons. Is there software or an app that might help here? Otherwise we are back to wrestling with the brute binary of the on/off button, and we all know who tends to win that one.
Looking around at the environmental degradation, financial turmoil, and increased social inequality around us, perhaps you’ve had the sinking feeling that we are creating our own demise. Presumably you are hoping there is a way that we can work ourselves out of this mess. You wouldn’t be alone.
Robert Kegan, Professor at Harvard University, gave a fantastic, if somewhat haunting, lecture here at the RSA last week. The event, “The Further Reaches of Adult Development: Thoughts on the ‘Self-Transforming’ Mind” chaired by Jonathan Rowson, briefly reviewed Prof Kegan’s work on adult development and introduced the audience to his intriguing theory – lovingly called “Bob’s Big Idea”- about the implications of more people reaching the ultimate stage of development.
image from wrike.com
To get the full effect of Bob’s Big Idea, at least a basic knowledge of his adult development work is needed. I encourage you to watch the event in its entirety, but will very crudely paraphrase the first half of Kegan’s talk here, where he asserts that humans undergo various stages of development of mental complexity. We are “makers of meaning” and to organise this meaning we have basic frameworks through which we look at life. We work through these various frameworks, or stages, over our lifetime. Kegan’s talk focused on the fourth and fifth stage of development (a summary of the adult development stages, produced by Dr Jennifer Garvey Berger, can be found here).
The fourth stage, called the self-authoring stage, is where people start to loosen the reins of others’ expectations. As the name suggests, this is the phase when you are able to begin to write your own identity, rather than viewing life through the lens of what others think of you. The self-authoring stage is one in which “we are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal “seat of judgment” or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations”.
According to Kegan’s research, some people reach the fifth and final stage, the self-transforming stage. If it is reached, it is generally at some point in life after middle-age. In this stage, people can start to hold more than one position. They are able to grasp that even their own way of seeing things might be flawed. With a self-transforming mind,
“we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other.”
Bob’s Big Idea
Why is the population living so much longer? Not how, but why? Why do we live 20-40 or more years beyond our fertile years?
What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?
Kegan’s idea is that, as a species, we are trying to figure something out: how to survive. He suggests that whenever a species moves collectively in a direction, it is always for one reason, to ensure survival, and it is exactly the same for us. The self-transforming stage, as mentioned above, is usually reached after middle age, if at all. So the longer we live, the greater the chance that more people will develop into self-transforming level of mental complexity. Kegan notes that we are creating our own demise and effectively asks: What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species? “Are we looking for a way out of hell?”
As RSA colleague Matthew Mezey summarises: old people will save the world.
Is higher better?
So does this mean that we should all be striving to reach ‘level 5’?
The phrases “adult development” and “mental complexity” get banded about the office from time to time, and in the past I was somewhat reluctant to join in the conversation. This partly down to lack of knowledge about the topic, but mostly down to the feeling that this type of language felt terribly elitist to me. It’s not that I don’t believe that people can be at different stages of development (because I do), but more that I am not yet convinced that higher is necessarily better. Is there any correlation between level of mental complexity and happiness or wellbeing?
Speaking to Kegan after the event, I learned that the answer is twofold, and depends on the sense in which we talk about wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing is about affect and an element of life satisfaction; that is, it is what we mean when we think of wellbeing as being in a good mood, enjoying the moment, and having general life satisfaction. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between stage of development and hedonic wellbeing; people at all stages are subject to a similar rollercoaster of joys and sorrows.
Eudemonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is less about feeling pleasure and more about having feelings of meaning, purpose, belongingness; having competence; being self-accepting. It is imaginable that indeed reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing.
reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing
When the conversation turned to mental illness, Kegan explained soberingly that paranoia might look very different to someone in a self-authoring stage of development than someone in self-transforming stage of development.
As with so many important questions, the answer is nuanced. This blog post has not done justice to Kegan’s talk last Thursday. I encourage you to listen to the talk, regardless of your views on Bob’s Big Idea, as a great way to learn more about the higher levels of adult development and to open up similar thought-provoking questions.
Nathalie Spencer is part of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre
One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.
Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.
Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.
Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.
There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.
By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.
Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.
With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email email@example.com and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.
Mark your calendars – tomorrow is the first International Day of Happiness!
“On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others. When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want.” – Ban Ki-Moon
In July last year, the General Assembly of the UN agreed to mark March 20th as a day for celebrating and spreading happiness, and educating ourselves and others about it. Three key pillars are recognised as being required for global happiness: economic, social, and environmental wellbeing.
This Huffington Post article by Randy Taran of Project Happiness provides a great overview of the day, with details of the story behind the UN resolution, suggestions for how to participate on the day, and ways to boost your own happiness. I encourage you to read the article and explore the numerous hyperlinks she has provided.
We tend to think about wellbeing often in the Social Brain Centre, because along with the critical external variables of economic stability, democracy and environmental sustainability, we believe that our internal habits, attention, and decisions influence our wellbeing as well.
Just yesterday, Emma wrote about achieving a state of ‘flow’ out on the slopes, and the deep satisfaction that comes with such a focus of attention. Also related to attention, research has shown that those who seek out the positive are more resilient to stress and anxiety, and interestingly, it seems that we can be trained to pay attention in various ways. Gratitude lists may also be a helpful tool in focusing on the positives in our lives.
In a blog post from earlier this year cheekily entitled The Key to Eternal Happiness, I reposition the want/should conflict and suggest that to help maintain or improve wellbeing, we should try to make things that are good for us in the long run also fun to do now. So if it is difficult to motivate yourself to work out at the gym, invite a friend to go with you and focus on the immediate reward of getting the chance to catch up with each other and share a laugh.
Elsewhere in the RSA, the Connected Communities team explores the impact of our social and community networks on our happiness and wellbeing; check out this video about the Social Mirror project to learn more about their important work. And last night the Whole Person Recovery team hosted an event in Tonbridge, where Andy Gibson of the Mindapples organisation spoke about getting our mental 5-a-day.
What will you do to celebrate the International Day of Happiness and help to spread happiness, joy and peace to others? The day’s website urges us all to ACT:
A- Affirm the pledge to bring happiness to others
C- Cheer ‘happy heroes’ and celebrate their good deeds
So start thinking about what you can do to improve the happiness and wellbeing of others around you, and don’t stop after tomorrow!
Being a social brain researcher, I frequently find myself reading about, thinking about and talking about concepts of human behaviour in the abstract. We might be working on an idea as to how to help people alter their habits, make decisions differently or change their patterns of attention, and at times it can all seem quite far removed from the quotidian reality of my own life. So, it’s great when, on occasion, these things come to life and I experience them directly.
When it comes to attention (one of the three key themes underpinning the work of the social brain centre) the concept of ‘flow’ is, of course, of interest to us. Flow describes a state in which one becomes completely immersed in an activity, having a kind of energised focus that is fully directed at the activity and utterly absorbing. It is often associated with artistic and sporting pursuits like playing a musical instrument, tennis or chess.
Without wanting to crow about it, I’ve just returned from a week of skiing in the French Alps, and, throughout the week I found myself most definitely in a state of flow. For me, skiing is the perfect activity to generate flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, says that the necessary conditions for flow include being faced with a task that has clear goals requiring specific responses. The goals must be both challenging and attainable, and the task must be an intrinsically rewarding activity. So, skiing certainly fits the bill according to these criteria
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions
More than that, I think skiing works for bringing about flow because it is challenging both physically and psychologically. It requires me to be to completely “in” my body as well as exercising my mind in ways that I don’t usually have to. Certainly in the early days of learning, it was necessary to overcome a whole load of instincts (i.e. when faced with a steep slope that you don’t want to career down, completely out of control; lean forwards).
The combination of needing to command your body to move in unfamiliar ways (subtle flexing of the ankles makes all the difference!) whilst not overthinking is massively challenging. Think about what you’re doing, so you do it right, but don’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up all stiff, rigid and robotic, and therefore unable to move in the right way. Like many activities that result in flow, the best skiing (at my intermediate level, at least) happens when you stop being too conscious of the precise, separate actions, and just allow the whole to come together.
My best moments of flow happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus
When it does, there’s really nothing like it. My best moments of flow during the week happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus. An extremely steep mogul field (bumps), with a base of ice, covered with a layer of soft fresh snow, plus the helpful addition of the occasional loose rock. Skiing through the forest, having no choice but to find a way to turn, even if it looks a bit too tight or precipitous. When the alternative is to crash into a tree, you suddenly find that you can pull off manoeuvres that you wouldn’t have thought you were capable of had you had time to think about it.
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity (be it skiing, playing chess, or whatever) leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions. This, perhaps paradoxically, brings about a spontaneous sense of joy.
Sounds like something we could all do with more of in our lives. But is it possible to engineer? Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow, suggests that there are steps you can take, but in my view, flow is somewhat elusive. It’s unrealistic to wake up on a Monday morning and decide to get yourself into a state of flow. In spite of this, some surprising research has shown that more occasions of flow occur at work than in leisure time.
According to those who’ve looked into it, jobs involving activities like problem solving, evaluation and planning are particularly likely to generate flow. Come to think of it, that’s starting to sound quite a lot like my job. But do I really experience flow at work on a regular basis? There are certainly some aspects of my work which I get utterly absorbed in, but I would say the rhythm of my work is such that it’s actually quite difficult to let the flow flow, as it were.
In fact, I think flow is increasingly difficult to access, as our world becomes punctuated by hyperconnective interruptions. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is now an expectation that we are permanently available, along with a near-addiction to getting new information, through our email accounts, Twitter feeds and personal networks. These phenomena are surely major threats to flow. Flow at work seems highly unlikely to occur when you’re in an open plan office, with phones ringing all around, colleagues popping in to ask quick questions, and the general hubbub and buzz of a busy office.
I’m sure that Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that specific goals requiring specific responses, challenge and attainability are needed to produce flow. In the context of work, though, I would say that uninterrupted time, and the right conditions in terms of space are just as important. How can you really be lost in flow with a pinging smart phone by your side? For me, and I don’t know whether I’m alone in this, the physical dimension also seems critical. Sure, I can get lost in writing up a report, but it’s never as complete, as total as the flow I experience when I’m on skis, trying not to crash into trees.